Life on Life: What I Learned From Refugees During My Internship

Nearly three years ago, I set out on an 11-month journey as an MTW intern, teaching English and ministering to refugee women in a city in Southeast Asia. The experience changed my perspective, faith, and sense of calling in ways that impact me to this day—ways I’m only just beginning to realize.

Over the course of my internship, I got to work side-by-side with the local church, did Bible studies with local believers, and—most impactful of all—I spent a lot of time with the refugee women whom I was teaching.

I did everything with them, and we got really close. In one of my last classes before the end of my internship, a refugee woman I love dearly said to me “Heather, I am going to miss you so much. A lot of people from other countries come and go, come and go—but they don’t stay. A lot of people come but they don’t touch—but you touch.” As she said this she put her hand over her heart, held it close, and said again, “You touch my heart.”

Now she could have been talking about all the babies that I picked up with poop on them, or all the snotty children that I just wanted to squeeze because they’re still so darn cute, or all the hugs that I gave out, but I don’t think that’s what she was talking about. That day I sat there and thanked God that He provided ways for me to connect to these women and “touch their hearts.” We couldn’t always communicate; we have different beliefs and live life very differently; we are from different backgrounds and very different places, but God is still God and I praise Him for that, because in the midst of so many differences we still had a deep love for each other. That, I know, is clearly a gift from God.

I spent 11 months doing life alongside these refugee women. I ate dinner with their family members. I joined them for weddings of people I had never met. I took care of their children when they had emergencies. I cried with them when they didn’t think they would be able to pay for the next month of rent. I rejoiced when they really grasped an English concept. I prayed for them when they were sick with things they did not know how to cure. I danced with them on their birthdays to songs I don’t understand the lyrics to. I held their feverish toddlers on the floor of the office. I listened as they told hard stories of how they fled their country. I held their hands as we walked through night markets. We laughed together when I asked them to name their children “Heather Ali” after me (many of their sons and daughters had “Ali” at the end of their name). We laughed when they snuck chilies into my food to force me to like spicy food. We cried as we hugged for one last time, knowing that I may never see some of them again.

My heart’s desire is for these women, none of whom are Christian, to know that there is one true God who loves, gives peace, accepts, and covers our sins. Throughout my whole time in Southeast Asia, I prayed that God would open doors to share the gospel, that God would use the local church to speak to them, that God would change their hearts to turn to Him and Him alone. When I prayed those things, I wasn’t praying for abstractions or ideas. I was praying for people, women whom I spent time with and loved with the love of Christ.

They Didn’t Need Me

My dad always says we should do life on life. That means doing life together: the hard, the good, and the mundane parts. That is exactly what I think God called me to during my time in Southeast Asia. He called me to do life alongside the local church and serve the church and its community. For me, that looked like teaching English to the refugees forced to flee their homes and live in this foreign land, serving them in whatever areas God presented.

When it came time for me to leave these women and the local church, to return home to finish college, it was so hard. I felt like I had finally started to understand the refugee community and had finally learned ways to love them well. I also felt like I had built trust with the community. How was I supposed to go back to America knowing that there are people who I could be loving and who need to be loved overseas? Then God reminded me: “Heather, they don’t need you. They need me.”

And it was true. They didn’t need me. No one needs Heather. But God allowed me to be a vessel for the work He wanted to accomplish. So, I left praising God that I was able to connect at all with these women, that I got to be a part of the work being done there, and that the work there is not over. I praise God that He has sent other people in the church to love that community; that He showed me that missions can look a lot different than I expected, different from how I have seen it presented in the past. Missions looks like living life together and presenting truth to people. It’s not a stop in, share the gospel, and then peace out kind of thing. It’s a stop, stay, do life, and love people right where they are  kind of thing—all with the prayer and end-goal that they would embrace Jesus as their Savior and that a church would rise up among them.

A New Mindset

I’ve been back in America for two years now. Since returning, I finished college, got married, and am now setting out on the next chapter of life with my husband. For now, we feel called to stay in the U.S.—doing life with people, being on mission where we are right now. But we’ve had so many missions conversations. So many people need to hear the gospel. This is a big thing. This is eternity! One day, we would be open—maybe even called—to moving somewhere overseas to serve again.

Looking back, I realize just how much I was shaped by my 11 months in Southeast Asia. When I left America and headed overseas, I was so unaware of how much God would open my eyes. I was so unaware of how He planned to give me His love to love this people group that I didn’t feel adequate to love. I continue to pray every night for my friends. I pray that God, being rich in mercy, would change their hearts and that they would come to know, love, and serve the Lord Jesus Christ.

In Asia, I lived life with the mindset: “How can I be missionally-minded with every single person I meet?” When I returned back to the U.S., I thought, “Why don’t I have that mindset all the time?”

No matter whether we’re overseas or in the U.S., our calling as Christians is to do missions—no matter what other job you have. Our calling is to glorify God and share Him with others, to be on mission right where we are, to be faithful members in our local church, to do life on life here and now. God taught me that through 11 months of doing life together with refugee women—my friends.

I would never trade the time I spent in Southeast Asia for anything. God is so gracious to allow me to have those memories and experiences. God is so gracious and so good to allow us, fallen human beings, to be a part of His big plan.


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